Last month saw the release of a review commissioned by Theresa May which proposes a series of reforms to post-18 education. While it aims to improve access to all forms of post-18 education, it is clear that the proposals contained in this report would only exacerbate the crisis facing Higher Education – leaving both students and universities worse off.
At first glance, some proposals may be welcomed by students in Higher Education. For example, the dropping of tuition fees from £9,250 to £7,500 and the removal of the 3% interest rate added to loans may be music to the ears of many. Beneath the surface, however, things aren’t as they seem: the repayment period would be extended from 30 to 40 years, and the annual earnings at which one begins to pay back the loan would be dropped from £25,000 to £23,000.
This would result in the richest fifth of graduates paying on average £25,000 less over their lifetime than with the current system. Whereas, graduates with lower and middle incomes would pay roughly £12,000 more. This would be nothing short of making working class students pay for the failures of marketisation, when they are the ones who’ve suffered the most!
While the report does contain proposals to bring back maintenance grants at £3000 (albeit tightly controlled), this would amount to 23% less than the grants provided in 2008, when adjusted for inflation. Moreover, with the average yearly rent at an extortionate £6,792, it is clear that this is far from enough to help lower income students.
The dropping of tuition fees would also mean less funding towards universities, that are already struggling to get by in the current for-profit system. Philip Augar, the former City of London banker behind the report, claims that the government could make up the £2 billion funding gap through direct grants – wishful thinking to say the least.
If in place, this would allow the government to favour degrees considered more beneficial to the UK economy, such as the sciences, while side-lining the humanities and arts, which are labelled as “low value” courses in the review. Such language reveals the pro-market sentiments that underlie this report, which measures the value of graduates in terms of their employability, and the value of the education system in terms of its economic benefits.
The proposals for Further Education have had a more positive response. A proposed rise in FE funding after a 25% decline over the past decade is certainly welcome. However, this is a classic case of robbing Peter to pay Paul; this rise shouldn’t have to come at the cost of Higher Education – not when we have enough wealth in society to provide a high standard of education to everyone.
This report tries to pit Further Education against Higher Education and the sciences against the humanities. But this is plainly a distraction from the real culprit: the marketisation of education. When universities are run like businesses, is it any surprise that cracks start to show when the economy lies stagnant? The ruling class will never invest where they see no profit, so why should we expect to save our education system in a capitalist system governed by profit?
What we need is a general election to force the Tories out, in favour of a Labour government who will scrap tuition fees and bring back maintenance loans high enough to support anyone. It is only through fighting alongside the Labour movement that students can win free and high-quality education for all.
Jack Tye Wilson,
Leeds Marxist Society